The works of William Shakespeare have been adapted for the screen since cinema’s earliest days, even before people could even speak on screen. The first Shakespearean sound feature was The Taming of the Shrew in 1929, starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and nearly a century later, filmmakers continue to use the Bard’s plays for countless reinterpretations. His works will continue to be adapted, reimagined, and dissected on screens big and small as long as movies continue to be made. Because they are in the public domain, anyone has the ability to grab ahold of these beloved plays and make something with them. 2021 saw the latest high-profile release of a Shakespeare adaptation with Joel Coen‘s The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.
Hundreds of films have been made out of Shakespeare’s plays, and with this list, we will look at fifteen films that turned them into something special on the big screen. Some ground rules for this list. The films must utilize Shakespeare’s dialogue, as the gorgeous poetry and prose are crucial to his legacy. That means no West Side Story, no Ran, no The Lion King, or any other film that just takes inspiration and does its own thing. Also, the UK has a long history of adapting these plays into television films and filming stage productions from the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre. These are also ineligible for this list, even if many are excellent (the RSC’s production of The Tempest, starring Simon Russell Beale, is a recent favorite). The fifteen films here are theatrical, textual adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.
15. Richard III (1995)
Sometimes all you want out of a Shakespeare adaptation is for a great actor to sink their teeth into one of the most iconic characters in the history of drama. Richard III from director Richard Loncraine delivers just that, with Ian McKellen taking on the title role. As the archetypal direct address villain, McKellen brings so much joy to Richard’s cunning and wickedness. Every syllable that he utters feels drenched in delicious slime.
Based on a stage production directed by Richard Eyre, the film takes the events of the play out of its fifteenth-century setting and into a fictionalized 1930s England that mirrors the Nazi party of the era, with Richard as the Hitler stand-in. The metaphor is certainly clunky and on-the-nose, but McKellen makes it all worthwhile, alongside the top notch cast that includes Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, and Kristin Scott Thomas. It may not be the most challenging adaptation of Richard III you can get, but it is a rollicking good time.
14. Coriolanus (2011)
For as often as Shakespeare’s plays are performed, there are really only about a dozen classics that get done on a consistent basis. Coriolanus rarely finds its way to the stage. So, when Ralph Fiennes decided to make his feature directorial debut, it came as a bit of a surprise he chose Coriolanus, a play never been adapted for the big screen before. Fiennes stars as the titular character, a Roman general elected to office with open contempt for the public. He and screenwriter John Logan transplant the play to the modern-day, shooting in Belgrade in place of Rome.
Where the political metaphor in Loncraine’s Richard III feels blunt and obvious, Coriolanus makes all the dots connect to today’s view of politicians, the media, and war. As is the case with so many Shakespeare adaptations, Fiennes recruits a cast of heavy hitters with Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Chastain. Even Gerard Butler proves himself very worthy of the material as Coriolanus’ chief adversary. Coriolanus went criminally underseen upon release, not even cracking $1 million at the domestic box office, but it is a gem waiting to be uncovered.
13. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
In the 1930s, Warner Bros. was not known for grand prestige pictures. Warner Bros. trafficked in down and dirty gangster films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar and musicals, often directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Taking on Shakespeare’s classic fantastical comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream was far from what was made at that studio, but they decided to pump in a good chunk of change into bringing to the screen the vision of Austrian director Max Reinhardt, who directed a production of the play at the Hollywood Bowl.
Collaborating with William Dieterle, the result is a film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that delivers the beautiful opulence only classic Hollywood could afford. Lavish sets, mind blowing optical special effects, and an orchestra beautifully playing Felix Mendelssohn‘s beloved score for the play. The cast of Warner Bros. players, including James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Dick Powell, and Olivia de Havilland, are more of a mixed bag, but they are there to serve the gorgeous production, which still astounds 87 years later.
12. Henry V (1944)
The directorial debut from Laurence Olivier has a fairly unusual origin. Obviously, Olivier was (and, for many, still is) the king of Shakespeare, becoming a figurehead for the pinnacle of British theatre. For his first film, Winston Churchill called upon Olivier to create a film to glorify British triumph to boost morale during World War II, and the result is his rousing adaptation of Henry V. Olivier, who also stars as the titular king, blends theatricality and cinema together in a very unique way, setting the first half-hour inside the Globe Theatre as a performance. Then, it expands out to highly stylized soundstage sets and eventually onto outdoor locations for a full battle sequence.
All of this is photographed in glorious Technicolor, creating vivid images we can only long for today. In terms of performance, Henry V does fall into a bit of stuffiness that turns off so many people from engaging with Shakespeare in the first place, but Olivier makes it hard to take your eyes off him. Henry V is a very successful film, both artistically and as wartime propaganda.
11. Julius Caesar (1953)
Many of us encounter Shakespeare for the first time in school, whether it be an English or drama class, and so much rests on that first teacher to either make you fall in love with the Bard or actively resist him for the rest of your life. Many people start with A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth, but my Freshman English teacher gave us Julius Caesar. Needless to say, it worked, hence you reading this list. A big reason it snapped into place was seeing the film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
In a lot of ways, reading the works of Shakespeare in class does not do a ton of good, because the medium in which they are meant to be seen is in performance. Watching actors like Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud perform this material with strong intention and clarity, inside this large Mankiewicz production, opened my fourteen-year-old eyes to something wonderful. The language became less daunting and transformed into beauty. The film isn’t terribly audacious or inventive, but it accomplishes exactly what it intends to do in creating a totally compelling, straightforward telling of Julius Caesar.
10. Hamlet (1948)
One would think that tackling hallowed material like Shakespeare would be an easy route to Oscar gold, but Olivier’s Hamlet remains the only Shakespeare adaptation to win Best Picture. His Hamlet stands in complete contrast with his Henry V. Ashewing vivid Technicolor for stark black and white, Olivier makes the existential tale of the Danish prince seeking revenge for his father’s murder a moody, hazy piece, stripping away so much of the story’s politics. He dives headfirst into the play’s Oedipal readings – a popular interpretation for performance ever since – even casting Eileen Herlie as Gertrude despite her being eleven years Olivier’s junior.
The production is far more minimal and perfectly matches the subdued, melancholy feeling pervading the entire picture. Olivier’s Hamlet puts psychology at the forefront, and the result is enchanting. A worthy representative as the sole Shakespearean Best Picture winner.
9. King Lear (1971)
Taking a page from Olivier’s Hamlet in capturing that moody black and white comes a difficult-to-track-down film. Peter Brook’s King Lear is possibly the bleakest film adaptation of a Shakespeare’s play. Like Loncraine’s Richard III, the main attraction for this King Lear is to see Paul Scofield take on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging characters. Like the lead role, the film is cold and harsh, shot in snow-covered Denmark, making you feel the need to bundle up in a blanket. Scofield’s Lear manages the perfect balance of monstrosity and empathy without feeling like two different characters, and he never falls into the trap of trying to do too much. The film is in dire need of a proper restoration, as it is really only available in a compromised form on YouTube, and it truly deserves it.
8. Hamlet (1996)
Any list of the greatest Shakespeare films requires Kenneth Branagh, who single-handedly revived a populist interest in Shakespeare at the end of the 20th Century. His biggest swing, and one of the biggest swings of any kind in the last 30 years, is his Hamlet. Every movie adapted from Shakespeare has to make decisions on what to cut and change to acclimate to the form. Branagh chooses to not cut a single word from Hamlet and shoots the four-hour epic in 70mm. Is it bloated? Yes. Are some of the big-name cameos in small parts distracting? Yes. Does it matter? Not really. The ambition on display is entrancing. Tackling the entire play allows all of the frequently cut political machinations to give entirely new dimensions to a story that alters the personal stakes we are so accustomed to. The chances of a film being made like this ever again are sadly slim to none. Cherish it.
7. Twelfth Night (1996)
1996 was a big year for Shakespeare. Not only did we get Branagh’s Hamlet, but we also got a film many of you will be extremely mad is not on this list: Baz Luhrmann’s MTV inspired William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, a shrill exercise in bludgeoning an audience. Quietly, the best of the three is the one not trying to overwhelm you with its scale or style, that being Twelfth Night from acclaimed stage director (Les Misêrables, Cats) and former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Trevor Nunn. This incredibly romantic, lushly photographed, and quite funny film about gender performance stars Imogen Stubbs as Viola, masquerading as a man under the service of Duke Orsino of Illyria (Toby Stephens) and caught in a romantic entanglement between her Duke and the object of his one-sided affections, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter).
Populated with tremendous British character actors like Ben Kingsley, Imelda Staunton, Richard E. Grant, and Nigel Hawthorne, this take on Twelfth Night gets at so many of the play’s underlying themes about gender and sexuality without ever putting a fine point on any of it. It’s a smart, gorgeous rendering of one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable plays and should not play second fiddle to those other two simultaneous releases in the slightest.
6. Titus (1999)
Some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays are a bit all over the place and don’t cohere into the most satisfying pieces, even with the still present poetry. Julie Taymor hit the ground running with her directorial debut of an early Shakespeare work, Titus (drop the Andronicus; it’s cleaner). Taymor is an artist who only knows how to take bold swings, and with Titus, she throws a lot at you, conceptualizing the play in a place free from time. Traditional Roman garb comfortably coexists with motorcycles. Elliot Goldenthal’s score incorporates genres from classical to electronic to alt-rock for a singular soundscape.
Anthony Hopkins delivers one of his finest performances in the title role with another cast of all-stars, featuring Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Harry Lennix, and Colm Feore. It’s bold, bloody, and beautiful. For some strange reason, it’s exceptionally difficult to get ahold of. Taymor has yet to match Titus in her career, including another Shakespeare adaptation with The Tempest, but one day she will strike gold again with the chances she takes.
5. Henry V (1989)
Eagle-eyed readers may recall that on the list of Kenneth Branagh’s best films Hamlet landed at a higher spot than his directorial debut Henry V, but the difference comes from what kind of list they appear on. As a Branagh accomplishment, Hamlet is the more impressive feat. As a translation of Shakespeare’s text to screen, Branagh’s Henry V perfectly realizes that task. It is grand and sweeping when it needs to be and can turn quiet and personal just as easily. Patrick Doyle’s score swells inside you. Derek Jacobi as the Chorus remains one of the greatest examples of an on-screen narrator in film history. This film is entirely responsible for the renaissance of Shakespeare on film for the following ten-plus years, and 33 years later, it packs an enormous punch.
4. Macbeth (1971)
Unfortunately, one of the great Shakespeare films was directed by Roman Polanski. He took on Macbeth just after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate, and the grisliness of life and callousness of violence paints every single frame. It shares the bleakness of Brook’s King Lear, coincidentally released the same year, in worldview but not in execution.
Macbeth is a vibrant, exciting work about death, despair, and madness. Unlike all of these other films, it does not feature a cast filled with marquee names, but the players, led by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis, delve deep and deliver uncompromising, electric performances of pretty difficult people. The Polanski factor will certainly turn away some viewers, but if you do give this a shot, you will experience a Macbeth film so enthralling that any new adaptation will struggle to match it, such as Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.
3. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Kenneth Branagh has directed five Shakespeare adaptations, and the one that stands above them all is Much Ado About Nothing. Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night feels like it used this film as a blueprint and could really only achieve 80-85% of the exquisite beauty and charm Branagh’s romantic comedy can give. He and then-wife Emma Thompson sparkle as Benedick and Beatrice, respectively. Their verbal sparring stands comfortably alongside the likes of the greats of the screwball comedy era of classic Hollywood. The photography of sun-dappled Tuscany is a feast for the eyes, as well as the beautiful, charming cast of Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, and Keanu Reeves. Throw in wild card Michael Keaton as Dogberry, who is going full Beetlejuice here, and you have a grand time at the movies.
2. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Every film listed thus far has been a straight adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Chimes at Midnight, directed by Orson Welles, takes Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, along with pieces of Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and filters them all through the character of Sir John Falstaff. Welles is another name that cannot be absent from a Shakespeare films list, and Chimes at Midnight stands as his finest. His tale of Falstaff, whom Welles also plays, and Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) is a beautiful tale of friendship, betrayal, and duty, turning plays that could be seen as overly plotty into a stunning character drama for what was a supporting character.
Infrequent funding and shooting forced Welles to pretty dramatically reinvent how he directed films, and Chimes at Midnight’s frenetic, immediate style feels extremely contemporary. The film feels alive, and Welles perhaps never gave a better performance on screen than he does as Falstaff. While Citizen Kane is a tough bar to clear, Chimes at Midnight comes awfully close.
1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
For many, Romeo and Juliet was people’s school introduction to Shakespeare, a tough setting for someone to fall in love with Shakespeare unless perfectly timed (like me with Julius Caesar). Many have their guard up and resist what they were shown in school. Franco Zeffirelli’s (a person undeniably linked with Shakespeare on film and a very problematic figure) adaptation of Shakespeare’s beloved romance has the air of homework to it. However, Romeo and Juliet could not be further from that connotation. It stands as the pinnacle of how to bring Shakespeare to the screen.
Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey perfectly capture naive young love and more than capably handle the devastating tragedy of the story, an impressive feat for two teenagers. Hussey, in particular, becomes a movie star before your eyes, much in the same way Rachel Zegler does in the Juliet analog role of María in the recent West Side Story. Michael York and John McEnery, as Tybalt and Mercutio, respectively, arrive as thrilling foils for the central romance. Even more than Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet make tremendous use of the primarily Tuscan shooting locations, which Tuscany native Zeffirelli can maximize. Romeo and Juliet truly is everything one would want and more from a Shakespearean film adaptation. There’s a reason it is the film every English teacher shows their students. It’s the best.